By ERIC NUNEZ
The Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO — As a player, Ricardo Gareca played a part in Peru’s soccer demise more than 30 years ago.
As a coach, the Argentine was responsible for the team’s resurgence.
With Gareca at the helm, Peru is back in the Copa America final after 44 years, facing host Brazil today at Maracana Stadium.
Gareca scored a decisive goal for Argentina in a 1985 qualifier for the World Cup the following year, virtually eliminating Peru from the tournament.
Peru had made it to two consecutive World Cups with a talented squad that included Teofilo Cubillas, Hugo Sotil, Juan Carlos Oblitas, Julio Cesar Uribe and Hector Chumpitaz. The team had won the 1975 Copa America, and was fighting eye-to-eye with South American powerhouses Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.
Peru was winning that qualifier in Buenos Aires 2-1 — a result that would have secured the team a spot at the World Cup — until substitute Gareca scored an 81st-minute equalizer that allowed the hosts to automatically qualify. Peru eventually had a chance in the playoffs, but couldn’t make it to the final tournament.
That defeat marked the start of Peru’s demise in South American soccer.
After its 1982 appearance, it took 36 years for Peru to return to a World Cup, and it happened with Gareca in command.
He revitalized the squad after taking over as coach in 2015, leading Peru back to the 2018 World Cup and gaining a hero’s status in the Andean nation.
“He was able to change Peru’s way of thinking on the soccer field,” veteran Peru striker Paolo Guerrero said before last year’s World Cup. “He gave [the team] an identity, allowed [it] to become more organized and to regain confidence.”
Peru played well in the World Cup in Russia but couldn’t advance in a group that included eventual world champion France.
Gareca had already led Peru to a third-place finish in the 2015 Copa America, when it lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Chile. In the 2016 South American tournament, Peru was first in its group and eliminated Brazil from the competition, but couldn’t get past Colombia in the quarterfinals, losing in a penalty shootout.
“I don’t have any particular formula,” Gareca said Saturday. “It has to do with the players believing in what they can do. It’s not only about technical quality, but also about physical and mental capacity. It’s about commitment. Peru has a lot of virtues.”
Gareca endured his share of criticism this year after the team’s demoralizing 5-0 loss to host Brazil in the final group game, a result that left the team on the verge of elimination. It eventually advanced as one of the top two third-place finishers.
The team was counted out by most despite reaching the knockout stage, but it recovered with two surprise eliminations — against title-favorite Uruguay in the quarterfinals and against two-time defending champion Chile in the semifinals. It defeated Uruguay in a penalty shootout and comfortably got past Chile 3-0.
The upsets came after the team lost one of its best players, Jefferson Farf’n, because of a serious left-knee injury sustained before the knockout stage.
“We had to go through some tough moments,” the 61-year-old Gareca said. “We made it to the final on our own merits, we knew how to overcome adversity.”
The ultimate challenge for Peru will be to defeat host Brazil in the final. If it can pull it off, that Gareca goal that helped to eliminate Peru back in 1985 will likely be forgotten once and for all.
“Peru can fight for this Copa,” Gareca said.
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